It's Tuesday morning, and the man with the terrible eyes is being hunted by monsters.
He runs straight across the park, ducking easily through the playground, hoping the jungle gym might present an obstacle to the creature. He's not worried about getting anyone else hurt; it's night time, and the place is deserted. The void creature, which has until now has demonstrated itself to be a few crayons short a box, even for an animalistic nothing-monster, does run into the jungle gym. The creature is roughly the size of a car and plows through the gym, bending and breaking the bars with little to no effort.
The man with the terrible eyes keeps running and takes a steep turn left. The void creature follows, tearing chunks out of the pavement when it turns, scrabbling for traction like Dog does on the kitchen linoleum. He leads the creature down the street.
About a block away from his house, the creature suddenly lets out a pained howl. He stops running, turns, and sees Dog on the creature's back, teeth sunk into its neck. He grins and lets the lightning in his blood come up through his skin. While the creature is distracted, he hurls a bolt of electricity at its side, then another, and another. The creature twists and tosses Dog aside, turning its attention back to him, but Dog continues to harry it.
They guide it around the street, slowly but surely weakening it until its legs finally buckle underneath it. The creature collapses. Dog launches himself onto it and begins tearing it to shreds.
The man with the terrible eyes- Alan he thinks. My name's Alan- leans against the nearest streetlamp while dog goes to work. Why don't they run? He wonders. They never ran, even after Dog showed up and started tearing chunks out of them. They would rather chase him until they died, rather than run away.
This is the third monster they've killed this way in the past two days. They've developed a sort of pattern:
First, he would do a walk-around of the park. If nothing happened, then great. He'd go home and have a quiet evening. But if he felt the pressure in his head, if he saw something following him, or if, as in one case, he came across a shadow creature eating something else (it had been raccoon or maybe a big cat), then he'd throw electricity at it and run down to the street, luring it to where Dog would be waiting.
They work well together, he and Dog.
He leans against the streetlamp, feeling the flow of adrenaline begin to ebb. He's going to be exhausted when he gets home, he knows it. The streetlight hums pleasantly, full of white-hot electricity moving up and down, back and forth, buzzing like contented bees. Absently, he puts his hand against the lamp and, not quite understanding how, he pulls. It's the same feeling as when he sends the energy out, only in reverse. He feels the electricity move through the metal, through his skin, down his arm and into his chest. He yelps and pulls his hand away.
Then, after a moment, he tentatively tries again.
Fire floods his veins in a way that is quickly becoming familiar and whiteness blurs the edges of his vision. This time, it comes in a burning rush, a torrent of electricity that floods the senses and goes straight through him, down from his hands and blood into the ground through his shoes, and it doesn't stop. For every bit that passes through him, there's more where it came from and it could go on forever. He laughs, though he doesn't know why. It lasts only for a second- he has to let go. It's like drinking from a fire hose, but he feels better.
He steps away from the pole and waits for the Dog to finish. He wonders if the shadow blood tastes good. Dog certainly seemed to enjoy it.
Eventually, the body disintegrates, melting into the pavement until nothing is left but Dog, standing on the street, looking mildly disappointed that his meal is gone.
"Come on," he says, patting his leg with his hand. "Come here, Dog."
Dog trots over and they head for the house. It's not that long a walk, though by the time they arrive, he's exhausted. Whatever boost the streetlamp had given him is entirely gone. He unlocks the door and pushes it open. Dog runs in before him and goes directly to the kitchen, where his food bowl is. He trudges in after Dog, feeling like a dead man walking. He allows himself to fall into the sofa, face-first, and pulls a pillow over his head to block out the light weak morning light. Tiny bumps beneath the cloth move: the beetles running around.
He ignores them. "Lemme sleep," he says. His neck is killing him. He must've pulled something during the run.
The beetles scurry out from beneath the sofa and crawl up his dangling arms. Others come from between the sofa cushions. They mass over him, chittering their concern.
"Guys," he says, turning his head away from the cushion. "Not now, I'm beat."
His vision fills with a black, damp snout and a pink tongue. Dog is there, snuffling and licking his face, whining anxiously.
"What's wrong?" he says. "What-" He chokes on the word. Every muscle in his body tenses. Pain. Pain from behind his eyes and from inside his chest and burning behind his neck. The world fills with white light, then darkness, then nothing.
* * * *
He wakes up on the floor. He knows he's on the floor even without opening his eyes. The indoor-outdoor carpet is pressed against his cheek, smelling vaguely of dust and feet both human and dog. For a while, he doesn't move. he doesn't want to move. He wants to let everyone know that he's fine on the floor, thanks, just taking a break.
But eventually he has to open his eyes. The phone is ringing in the kitchen and he has to answer it, which means getting up, which means waking up for real. He opens his eyes with a groan and immediately receives conflicting messages.
He is looking ahead. He sees the window and the table with the radio on it and the place on the wall where there would be a fireplace, but instead is just a bricked frame against plain wall with a mantle on top. But he is also seeing the sofa behind him, and the way into the kitchen, and the cracking plaster in the wall.
He knows his house. It never felt like home, but it was familiar, and he knows he is seeing it, his familiar house, from two different directions at once, and it's completely alien. The process alien. Everything screams inside him that this is wrong. His head hurts. The pain is blinding, taking focus away from both visions. This is wrong. This should not be, this cannot be. He cannot, he can not-
Things go black again.
He wakes up, again, still on the floor. He opens his eyes and sees both the shadowed underside of the sofa behind him and the carpet and coffee table in front of him. His head spins, and he feels nauseous. The internal screaming of wrong! slowly creeps up inside, so he closes his eyes and tries not to throw up. Only his front eyes, his real eyes close. He can still see behind him. But the nausea, the pain, the alarming wrongness stop immediately.
Minutes pass, but he stays on the floor, trying to breathe, trying not to scream, or cry, or die of a heart attack. Slowly, after a long time of nothing, he reaches for his back. His shoulders are fine, but he can see his hand searching. There is no coordination between this eye and his hand. It takes longer than he'd expected to find the new eye. It's on the back of his neck, right where his skull ends and neck begins. It's an eye, complete with lid and lashes. When he pokes it, there is no instinct to wince, to close the lid and protect itself. It hurts.
Slowly, awkwardly, he pushes himself off the ground and watches the ceiling come into view, then be replaced by everything behind him. Control over the eye is touchy, at best. He tries to get the hang of looking side to side, and it takes a minute. Once he can look around reliably, he walks backwards to the bathroom, tripping over the coffee table once before making it. The eye looks at itself through the mirror. For the first time in his life, he can see the back of his head straight on.
The eye is gray-blue, the same shade as the ones in front. It has an iris and pupil and sclera and everything an eye should. When he feels the area around it, he feels a bony ridge. There is an eye socket in the back of his neck.
The eye blinks. He turns to the toilet and retches. The next few minutes are spent hugging the bowl and losing everything he's eaten that morning until there's nothing left but clear, off-yellow bile that burns his throat.
No answer presents itself. He has no idea why this has happened. Thoughts whirl through his head. Chemicals in the water. Random mutations. Radiation. Cancer.
His front eyes, his real eyes open and the nausea returns. He immediately closes them. Then, he gently closes the lid of the back eye by hand. Again his front eyes open, but this time there is no nausea and there is no panic, just the bathroom wall and towel rack. Everything feels completely fine. He removes his hand, and the third eye flies open. He sees the mirror again and there is a sharp pain in his head. He forces the back eye closed, this time without using his hand. He turns around so he's facing the mirror properly and stares at his face.
I have a third eye. His heart beats too quickly. Breathing is hard. I have a third eye. His breath comes in short gasps, like he is choking on the air. Why do I have a third eye? He leans on the sink for support; his legs have suddenly turned to jelly and won't support his weight any longer.
"Why the fuck do I have another eye?"
The dog watches him from the bathroom doorway, head tilted. Search me, he seems to say.
What do I do?
Call the hospital! Comes the immediate response. And he almost does. He makes it to the kitchen, phone in hand, when an image flashes before his eyes. It's him, strapped onto a metal table, men and women in white coats carrying knives and clipboards cutting into him and then writing about it. People with syringes injecting poison into his veins and drawing out blood. Bright lights that scald his eyes--
He drops the phone like it burns him and it goes clattering to the ground. He can't go to a doctor. Doctors are completely out of the question. If having this eye is somehow a sign of- of contamination or cancer or mutation or anything that might kill him, then he is going to die, because there is no way in hell he is ever voluntarily going to see a doctor.
It makes no sense, though. He'd never been afraid of doctors before, had he?
He does not panic. He tells himself that he is not panicking. But the small, sensible voice saying that is drowned out by the blood pounding in his ears and the sound of his heartbeat and the odd, little gasps he's breathing in and before he knows it, he's sitting in the corner, head in his hands, shaking. The dog and beetles give him wide berth, sensing that this isn't the time.
It lasts for half an hour.
After that he gets up, straightens his clothes, wipes his eyes and nose on his sleeve, then grimaces at his sleeve and goes to wash the shirt.
I have to hide it, he thinks while pouring laundry detergent into the appropriate slot. He starts the washer and then he --very calmly-- walks to his room and looks through all the clothes he has. There isn't much. Three shirts he cycles through and a jacket. Only two shirts have collars and none of the collars are large enough to hide the eye, even when popped up. What he needs is a scarf, but he doesn't have one; they'd always seemed like superfluous things when a good jacket would do the trick, but even his jacket can't hide the eye.
Okay he thinks. Okay okay okay okay okay think. He tries. He needs a scarf. In order to get a scarf, he needs go into public, and in order to do that he needs to hide the eye.
He starts to giggle. He tries to stop, but he can't. He's giggling and soon he's on the floor, sitting against the bed, laughing until his eyes water. When he finally gets control over himself, he sees the dog still watching him from the doorway and it's so funny that he starts laughing again.
I'm losing my damn mind, he thinks, getting to his feet.
He wonders briefly if this eye will make people uncomfortable like his other ones. The giggles start bubbling up again and he stops them. No. No, he cannot afford to lose his mind just yet. What was left of it. Things happen he thinks as he picks himself up.
Weird things happen and there are no reasons and no explanations and that's just the way it is. Shit just happens.
The mantra is one he's repeated to himself often over the years. There are no reasons, there are no explanations. Things just happen. If he keeps the eye closed, then it's like things are normal. The dog nuzzles his hand when he passes. He gives it a scratch behind the ear. Things just happen.
The phone rings in the kitchen and he nearly jumps out of his skin. He runs to it, though there's no need to run.
"Hello?" he says, trying to sound confident.
"You missed your appointment," says his Supervisor.
"With the doctors I've arranged for you. You were supposed to meet them at noon. They called to tell me you never arrived."
"Sorry, sir," he says, internally cursing. "It must have slipped my mind." Noon? It's noon already? Past noon? Dammit.
"Alan, if you don't cooperate, then we can't help you."
"I'm really sorry. It won't happen again."
"I'll reschedule you for Thursday, then. I mean it, Alan. We want to help you, but we need you to help us do that."
"Yes, sir," he says. "Sorry sir. Bye."
He hangs up before his Supervisor can say anything else.
Think, he thinks. He paces the house, running his hand along the wall and trying desperately to think. Think think think thinkthinkthink-
The shady way he'd been acting, his insistence that he see a doctor- not a regular practitioner, but an Iotech doctor specifically. The memory wipes. Had he known this would happen? Had he planned on this? That would explain the nagging about missing the appointments; maybe they wanted to catch this before he found out. Maybe they'd do. . .something and erase his memory. Or maybe they wanted to pass it off like they were heroes. 'We saved your life, look at this weird mutation! Don't worry, we fixed it. Trust us.'
Or maybe he is entirely paranoid and should go immediately to the hospital.
He flicks his hand and draws out electricity from inside the walls. It curls in jagged tendrils around his hand and arm. It ought to be frightening, but it's not. It's comforting.
And if anyone knew he could do this, they would- they would-
For a second, a brief moment, he sees a flash of overly bright rooms and lab coats and clipboards and syringes and operating tables and-
The glimpse is gone.
He lets the electricity flow back into the wall and takes a deep breath. Iotech did this. He doesn't know how, or why, but he's certain it's Iotech's fault. He has to leave.
But for now. . . He rummages through the medicine cabinet and, after a minute, finds a box of band aids. He slaps a couple onto the back of his neck and hopes there's no bulge where the eye is.
Scarf, he thinks, grabbing his coat off the chair. Maybe plastic surgery, sometime in the future. He could probably afford plastic surgery; it wasn't as though he'd really touched his own money since starting and Iotech.
The dog follows him on his way out the door, and when he opens the car door, Dog leaps in the front and sits down in the passenger seat. "Fine," he mutters. "Whatever."
It's not until he's sitting down that he realizes he forgot his keys.
I'm calm. I'm calm. I'm calm-"
"Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!"
He slaps the ignition and power surges from his hand into it. The engine roars to life. Dog whines, concerned, and he says, "Sorry," before pulling out of the drive.
* * * * *
The bank is close by, nestled between a Sees Candies and a Panera in the small shopping center locally called The Plant. He parks and passes the outside ATM, going inside the bank proper. While he normally hates inflicting himself on people, he cannot use the ATM; if he looks at the screen for too long, it'll break and blink out the same way TVs did.
There's no line. Inside, he gives the teller his card, ID, and pin number, and she types the information into her computer. After a second, the smile freezes and she says, "I'm sorry, sir, but it appears the funds on this account have been frozen."
"You can't withdraw anything until it's removed. I'm sorry."
"But- I didn't- when was it frozen? Nobody told me anything! Why was it frozen?"
"Let me see. . . " She clicks a few more times on the computer, and opens her mouth to say something, but the phone on the desk beside her starts to ring. She glances at the ID on the phone and frowns. "I'm sorry," she says, reaching for the receiver. "It's the bank manager. Hello? Yes-" She glances at Alan and frowns slightly. "Ye-es. Yes, sir."
She glances up towards the ceiling, and it takes him a second to realize she's looking at the security camera there. "Understood." She hangs up the phone. "I'm sorry, sir, but I'm not permitted to divulge that information."
He stares. "They called you just now and told you not to tell me, didn't they?"
"I'm not at liberty to-"
He looks directly at the security camera and takes off his sunglasses. He doubts the effect will be anything like if whoever-was-watching were in the room with him, but he could hope. He flips his middle finger at the camera.
"Sir," the teller says, "please refrain from flipping off the camera-"
"Iotech's behind this, aren't they?"
"I don't know what-"
He whirls on her. "Aren't they?" he nearly shouts. It's her turn to stare. The blood drains from her face, and her eyes go wide.
"Your eyes. . ." she breathes.
He's too upset to notice that her hand is reaching under the desk. "It's Iotech! They've frozen my account. I demand you unfreeze it immediately! I haven't done anything wrong-"
"Sir, please calm down-"
"I am calm!" he roared. "Fix my account!"
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he notices the other tellers and other patrons nervously moving away from him while two men in security uniforms move closer. He glares at them, and they stop in their tracks.
I could burn them down, he thinks. His hands grow hot, and electricity sparks at his fingertips. I could burn them all down. And he wants to.
He wants to set the whole world on fire. His entire life, He'd been marginalized at best, hated at worst, feared most of the time and ignored the rest. People always found it easy to ignore what made them uncomfortable, and he'd always made it easy for them.
But now he is on fire. He's giddy with it. He can feel it burning inside him, cracking open the skin on his arms and face in patterns like fractured pottery. He doesn't see anything else; the fire is behind his eyes and all he can see is the light. He wants to laugh. He's burning, and everyone can see him. They're all looking at him, and he wants them all to burn-
And then he realizes what he's been thinking. He realizes the teller is crying. The ground at his feet is charred black, the carpet burned away and the wood floor beneath reduced to charcoal. The two security guards are sitting slumped against the wall, and the other patrons and tellers- the ones who hadn't fled- are watching him, horrified.
"Oh God," he says. The fire in his fists extinguishes. His skin stitches itself seamlessly back together. "I- I'm sorry."
He turns and runs out the door.
* * * * *
He doesn't know how long he runs. When he can't run anymore, he jogs, then finally walks, all without really seeing anything around him. The world is a gray haze, a blur of people on the street who aren't recognized really as people, but obstacles, and heavy, quiet air that distorts and mutes the noise around him. It's like walking through water, though nobody else on the street notices.
He can't think. If it feels as though he's walking through water, then thought is like trying to swim in mud. All he can manage is a sense of unfocused deja vu. He's done this before. He's done this extensively before. But the thought floats idly by, just out of reach, and he can't be bothered to grasp it. He walks.
Time doesn't pass, or if it does, there's no sign of it in the gray, unfocused place where he's walking. Something interrupts him though; a force from behind that knocks him forward. He falls, and when he lands face-first on the pavement, too lethargic to throw up his hands and catch himself, he is back in the world of color and time. The world clears. The haze is gone, and he's left clearly sitting on the sidewalk near the park.
Dog wags its tail and looks at him, eyes level with his, tongue lolling out of the side of its mouth, obviously pleased.
"What he hell was that?" he says. His head aches. "It was like-"
Like after his parents died.
The thought hits him hard. he stares unseeing in front of him, shocked.
He'd forgotten. How could he have forgotten? Mom and dad had just died. He'd been called to the principal's office and they'd broken the news to him there. The counselor had been trying to talk to him, and a police officer had been talking to the principal and his home room teacher, and he couldn't take it. He'd gotten up and walked out. They'd run after him; he remembered thinking how far away they sounded, but they didn't see him. He'd already slipped into the gray world between.
Nobody could see him in the gray world, not really. Their eyes slid off him. Their brains wrote him off as uninteresting, and he thought the same of them. Complex thought was impossible in the gray world. Ambition, curiosity, the ability to give a shit about anything at all we're crushed by the all consuming meh. Come to think of it, He doesn't remember ever getting hungry, or eating, or having any other human function while in the gray world, as if he ran on apathy alone.
How could he have forgotten that?
Easy. He barely remembered it while it was happening. If his Supervisor hadn't found him and hired him on at Iotech, he'd probably still be wandering around.
He looks around. It's dark, now. The streetlamps are on, and the park is deserted. He spends a minute thanking dog with pets, scratches, and cooed words, then gets to his feet.
They start for home.
* * * * *
A hulking black figure is waiting for them in front of the house. It sits beneath a streetlight, watching them despite its lack of visible eyes. It's crouched, but its limbs are so long that it gives off the impression of a sitting cartoon frog. Its head ends in a beak jagged with shark-like teeth.
Dog growls and the man with the terrible eyes gathers electricity in his fists, but the creature stays where it is. They wait for it to attack them, but it doesn't.
"Hey," Alan shouts eventually, unable to stand it any longer. "Go away."
The creature moves its head.
"What do you want?" Alan says tiredly. "Why do you keep coming after me?"
The figure is silent. Long seconds pass and for a time the only sound Alan can hear is his uneven breath and his slowly steadying heartbeat. Even Dog is silent. Finally, in a voice that puts Alan in the mind of taut, dry ropes covered in dust and starting to fray, the figure says, "I fear."
"You can talk?" He hadn't really been expecting an answer.
"We have become I and I consumed." It shifted. "I consumed the other I. I consumed the meat that guarded us. I consumed meats from the outside while they slept."
"The meat that guarded-" he remembers the security guards killed in his and Bridges' escape. He thinks of how quiet the neighborhood has been lately and feels sick. "You killed people."
"I am afraid."
He waits for more. When it becomes apparent nothing more is coming, he says, "And?"
"When I was we and we were whole we there was no fear. We did not fear and did not fear death and there was no death there was no end only us. They made us I. The meat that watched us tore us apart and made us incomplete. We were all and all was us and we were whole and now us is I and I will die. I fear. I fear death."
"Welcome to the world. Everything’s afraid of dying."
"But we did not! We were not afraid, we could not end!"
"So what do you want from me?"
"I do not want to fear anymore! I do not want fear and I do not want to die. I must become we and we will be whole and we will be as we were before."
"What's that got to do with me?"
"I thought you were us. I thought you were like me, separate from us. But you are not. You are like us, but you are not us. You were not ripped from a whole, but you are a fragment of a whole. It is not our whole."
He tries to wrap his mind around this. "What whole am I from, then? You said I was a fragment- a fragment of what?"
"I thought you were the void."
"I am a piece of we and we are from the void, but you are not us. You are like us, but you are not us." It lurched forward. "But you are close enough."
The figure lunges. The air blurs where it passes; he has no idea how something so big could be so fast. before he can move, the creature has smacked dog several feet away. The void being slashes at him with claws as long as knives and twice as sharp. Searing pain that burns like fire and then immediately goes painfully cold fills his shoulder and chest. He screams and falls and, just as the void creature lunges for him again, he rolls out of the way.
He fires several bolts of electricity at it and runs towards the streetlight. The creature slashes his back, and he hears the fabric tear, but there's no pain, so he assumes it missed. He reaches the streetlight, puts a hand against the metal, and pulls. The power floods from the wires inside through the metal, through his hand, down his arm and into the other, just as the creature reaches him.
He lets loose the power, and light shoots from his hands in an electric streak thick around as the streetlamp itself. It hurts, but he can't tear himself away, even if he wanted to. Over the crackling of the electricity, he hears the creature screeching, both with its acquired physical voice and inside his head.
It takes forever. Eventually, the flow of power ebbs, and he can pull his hand away from the lamp. All around him, the houses and streetlights are dark. A few feet away, the creature's charred corpse lies on the street, still smoking. Dog comes, limping, over to sniff it.
The thing is dead. Whatever it had been, it was dead. He wipes his forehead with his free hand and succeeds in only smearing blood over his face. The pain in his shoulder returns. His shirt is torn, and through the tears, he sees where the creature's claws had cut him, but also that the cuts were now burned red and closed.
He waits. The body isn't disappearing like the others. This one sits mockingly on the sidewalk, still resolutely a corpse. Slowly, he goes to it and nudges it with his foot, ready to shoot it again in case it jumped up.
It does not jump up. It is still thoroughly dead.
They're getting more real, he thinks. They're becoming more like us. They were becoming more of the world.
After moment of internal screaming and some external whimpering he bends down and tries to pick up the void creature's corpse. That doesn't work, and he has to settle with dragging one of its legs instead. It takes forever to get through the side yard. The latch on the door gives him trouble, but there's no way in hell he is going to carry it through the house and get blood on his floor.
Once he's in the back yard, he unceremoniously chucks the corpse into the hole and turns away. He counts to six. When he turned around, the hole is empty. He sighs, relieved. He was worried the hole wouldn't take the creature's corpse.
I just killed something, he thought.
He’d killed things before- spiders, flies. Once when he was sixteen and learning how to drive, he hit a squirrel. But those weren’t the same (though he did still feel bad about the squirrel). It wasn't like the others, either. The dog had taken care of those, he'd just helped. This was the first one he'd killed on his own. He’d talked to it and it had talked back and he'd killed it.
He waited for the guilt and felt none. He closed his eyes and examined his soul. It was still mostly white. Gray patches here and there, but no tell-tale blackness or horror or shame or guilt or anything he'd been led to believe someone was supposed to feel after killing something sentient.
Sometimes things just happened. Sometimes things just happened, and there was no explanation. There were no answers.
Dog sits on the back steps, whining. His front paw is red and black: dogs blood mixing with the monster's blood. Alan unlocks the back door and lets them both inside.
No, he thinks. There are answers. And Iotech has them. He grabs himself a soda from the kitchen and starts to plan.